By: Patrick Savage, Columnist
Photo Credit: New York Times
Following a visit to Ukraine by US Secretary of Defense James Mattis in August, the debate over whether the United States should provide defensive weapons to Ukraine’s military in the fight against Russian-backed insurgents has reignited.[i] Some suggest providing weapons to Ukraine is tantamount to kicking off Doomsday. However, it remains a sensible proposal so long as appropriate and mutually understood preconditions are established by both sides.
The idea of providing Ukraine with defensive weapons—particularly anti-air and anti-tank weaponry—is not a new concept.[ii] The proposal has existed since the earliest days of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, when pro-Russian rebels declared independence after the flight of Kremlin-aligned Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych in the face of pro-Western protests. Senator John McCain was an early proponent of the idea, and has continued to support it aggressively over the three years since hostilities began. He has criticized both the Obama and Trump administrations on the issue and pressed them to act.[iii] [iv]
The proposal remains highly controversial. Within the past month, scores of op-eds from experts opposing the provision of arms to Ukraine have materialized. These pieces generally claim that sending weapons would undermine diplomatic efforts, raise US-Russia tensions, and exacerbate the conflict.[v] [vi] [vii] Charles Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University, argued in an August Washington Post op-ed that while he understood the desire to help Ukraine, sending arms would likely only escalate the situation, and could even cause a diplomatic rupture between the United States and its NATO allies.[viii] Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a warning along similar lines, stating any lethal aid provided by the United States would only make the situation in Ukraine worse.[ix]
The 2014 annexation of Crimea and the subsequent Russian sponsorship of insurgents in Donetsk and Luhansk demonstrate just how much of a threat Russia poses to Ukraine. However, if Ukraine were to use these new weapons to try and retake the rebel-held provinces, escalation could ensue. Even if the Ukrainians defeated the separatists, it may give Russia reason to officially and overtly invade Ukraine further in defense of ethnic Russians and Russian nationals.
The 2008 Russo-Georgian war provides an insightful precedent. After the pro-Western president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, ordered his Western-trained and equipped army to retake the separatist bastion of South Ossetia, the separatists’ Russian military backers responded aggressively, attacking and driving the Georgians out. Russia then launched its own invasion of Georgia over five days of fighting, ending in de facto independence for both Georgian separatist enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, under the protection of Russian troops.[x] [xi]
While fighting continues in Eastern Ukraine, the front has remained static for some time. But if Kyiv felt emboldened by the receipt of new weapons from the United States and launched an attack to retake Donetsk and Luhansk, we may very well see a Georgian-style escalation on a far greater scale—and far closer to the heart of Europe. Given its strategic location, a full-scale war in Ukraine would be a far greater threat to the national security of the United States and its allies.
The existence of Ukrainian militia groups such as the Azov Regiment and Right Sector, which harbor far-right, ultranationalist tendencies, further complicates the situation. Though critical in the early days of the war, they have increasingly become a liability for the government, even as it has integrated many of them into the military.[xii] With these groups often being difficult or impossible for the government to control, the idea of their possessing advanced US weaponry and being able to escalate the conflict unilaterally is not comforting.
However, this is not a reason not to give weapons to Ukraine. Even without giving the Russians a reason to attack, Ukraine lives under the threat of further escalation of war by Russia and further threats to its sovereignty. The United States should provide the weapons Ukraine needs to defend against such a threat. In the same vein, Ukraine must also recognize there is likely no path to reconciling Donetsk and Luhansk through purely military means—at least any that would not result in a far wider war. Though diplomatic efforts over Ukraine have consisted of trial and error, they may still be the only way to end the conflict.
Until now, a diplomatic breakthrough on Ukraine has seemed farfetched. Fortunately, there has been recent movement on that front. Putin recently suggested that he would accept United Nations peacekeepers along the front line between Ukraine the separatists. Kyiv has shown interest, but wants to see peacekeepers stationed throughout the conflict zone, without the presence of any Russian forces.[xiii] So far, Putin has yet to reject the Ukrainian counter-offer. In a phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on September 11, Putin expressed some willingness to alter his original proposal in line with Ukrainian demands.[xiv] While the past few years have shown Putin cannot always be taken at his word, it is still an encouraging sign after years of deadlock.
Diplomacy should be pursued to the utmost to end the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Ukraine does face a significant military threat from Russia, and the United States should provide it with the weapons it needs to defend its territorial sovereignty. These weapons must be provided on the conditions that, first, Ukraine pledges not to launch a Saakashvili-inspired offensive to retake the Donbass, and second, it must enact verifiable measures to show that the most dangerous weapons—anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles—will be issued only to professional units of the Ukrainian Military and are secured from access by groups such as Azov and Right Sector.
The United States must walk a fine line. If it either provides weapons with no guarantees, or abandons Ukraine, it risks irreversibly damaging its credibility among friends and allies. The United States must pursue a measured middle ground, however difficult that may be, in order to keep Europe’s eastern edge from destabilizing any further and threatening US interests— including the safety and security of its allies and partners.
[i] Michael R. Gordon, “Jim Mattis, in Ukraine, Says U.S. Is Thinking of Sending Weapons,” The New York Times, August 24, 2017, accessed September 10, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/24/world/europe/mattis-ukraine-russia.html.
[ii] Eric Schmitt and Andrew E. Kramer, “Pentagon and State Department Said to Propose Arming Ukraine,” The New York Times, August 01, 2017, accessed September 10, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/01/world/europe/pentagon-and-state-department-are-said-to-propose-arming-ukraine.html.
[iii] Daniel Schearf, “McCain Urges ‘Crushing’ Sanctions for Russia, Arms for Ukraine,” Voice of America, September 04, 2014, accessed September 10, 2017, https://www.voanews.com/a/mccain-urges-crushing-sanctions-for-russia-arms-for-ukraine/2439206.html.
[iv] Max Greenwood, “McCain renews calls for Trump to send weapons to Ukraine,” The Hill, August 23, 2017, accessed September 10, 2017, http://thehill.com/policy/defense/347716-mccain-renews-calls-for-trump-to-send-weapons-to-ukraine.
[v] James Carden, “The Latest Push to Arm Ukraine,” The Nation, September 13, 2017, accessed September 14, 2017, https://www.thenation.com/article/the-latest-push-to-arm-ukraine/.
[vi] Editorial Board, “No arms for Ukraine: Don’t pour lethal weapons into volatile area,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 10, 2017, accessed September 14, 2017, http://www.post-gazette.com/opinion/editorials/2017/09/10/No-arms-for-Ukraine-Don-t-pour-lethal-weapons-into-volatile-area/stories/201709100094.
[vii] Michael Kofman, “For the U.S., Arming Ukraine Could Be a Deadly Mistake,” The New York Times, August 25, 2017, accessed September 10, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/25/opinion/united-states-arm-ukraine-missiles.html.
[viii] Charles Kupchan, “Why giving Ukraine lethal weapons would be a massive mistake,” The Washington Post, August 07, 2017, accessed September 10, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/global-opinions/wp/2017/08/07/why-giving-ukraine-lethal-weapons-would-be-a-massive-mistake/.
[ix] “Putin Warns U.S. Against Supplying Ukraine With Lethal Weapons,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, September 05, 2017, accessed September 10, 2017, https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-ukraine-putin-warns-us-supply-lethal-weapons/28717863.html.
[x] “2008 Georgia Russia Conflict Fast Facts,” CNN, March 26, 2017, accessed September 10, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/13/world/europe/2008-georgia-russia-conflict/index.html.
[xi] Stephen Zunes, 2015, “U.S.–Georgian Relations and the 2008 Conflict with Russia,” Peace Review 27, no. 4: 492-498, Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed September 14, 2017).
[xii] Jack Losh, “Ukraine turns a blind eye to ultrarightist militia,” The Washington Post, February 13, 2017, accessed September 10, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/ukraine-turns-a-blind-eye-to-ultrarightist-militia/2017/02/12/dbf9ea3c-ecab-11e6-b4ff-ac2cf509efe5_story.html.
[xiii] Sabine Siebold, Paul Carrel, and Editing By Ralph Boulton, “Ukraine gives cautious welcome to Putin’s peacekeepers offer,” Reuters, September 14, 2017, accessed September 16, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-ukraine-crisis-germany/ukraine-gives-cautious-welcome-to-putins-peacekeepers-offer-idUSKCN1BP1YM?il=0.
[xiv] “Putin Says UN Peacekeepers Could Be Deployed Throughout Ukraine Conflict Zone,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, September 11, 2017, accessed September 14, 2017, https://www.rferl.org/a/ukraine-putin-un-peacekeepers-merkel-border-osce/28729481.html.